Pokémon Coming Together: The Revival Of American Civic Culture

Mark Lutter Lead Economist, NeWAY Capital
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In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam details the decline of American civic culture. He writes about a number of trends that describe how American communities have lost the fabric that once bound them together. Fewer people are part religious organizations, community organizations, non-profits, and fraternal organizations. The result is a society increasingly segregated by class, and increasingly distrustful of prominent institutions — government, non-profit, and private.

Pokémon Go is starting to reverse that trend. Pokémon is media franchise with video games, TV shows, and a card game. The games involve walking around, capturing Pokémon, and training them in battle. Pokémon Go puts this game in the real world through smartphones. Finding Pokémon requires walking around the real world, with your smartphone telling you when you encounter wild Pokémon, or locations to find items or battle trainers.

Pokémon Go has become a phenomenon. Yesterday Pokémon Go was close to surpassing Twitter in average daily users. Given the mechanics of the game, this means that people are going outside and interacting with new people.

I downloaded Pokémon Go on Saturday. I spent much of Sunday walking around trying to catch Pokémon. It was easy to spot other trainers. They were walking around with their smartphones out. When passing them my friends and I would say hi, laugh at the absurdity of the situation, and point out where we recently found Pokémon. I found myself talking to strangers more than ever before, brought together by a need to catch ’em all.

My experience is hardly unique. Reddit users have reported their experience. One writes that “Pokemon Go might save my life” by giving him a reason to get out of his house and interact with people. Another writes that “Pokemon Go has saved my relationship with my family” by giving them a common interest. A third writes that he might have saved a life due to Pokémon Go. He was in a park trying to catch Pokémon and found a woman in trouble and was able to call an ambulance for her.

But those aren’t even the best stories out there. Another Redditor writes,

Ok, reporting in. Couldn’t sleep so I downloaded the game and took a 3am walk. There is a little park a few blocks from me that had like three pokestops and a gym, so I wandered over there to see what the game could offer. Picked up an Eevee outside my house and a couple of trash pokes on the way to the park.

So I get here and wander around a little checking out the stops and rustling in the tall grass, then decide to go a few blocks away to see more stops when I hear from the darkness a “Yo, my man!”

Turning I see two sketchy looking dudes sitting on a bench in the park. I must have walked right past them without noticing them. Great. One of them waves “My man, check over by the blue truck over there we got an onyx earlier.”

So I wander over by the truck, and sure enough there’s a fucking onyx there. Awesome. So I end up chatting with the guys for a bit, told them where I got my eevee. They convinced me to join red team when I hit level five so we could “lock shit down” in the neighborhood.

Then the cop shows up.

Yeah, so it turns out two twentysomething black dudes and a forty year old white guy chilling in the park at 3am looks strange. It took a bit of talking to convince the cop we weren’t doing a drug deal, and a bit longer to explain the game. Then the cop downloaded the fucking game on his phone and asked us how to get started.

Go red team.

Technology is often lamented because it tends to isolate us, reducing the social bonds that made communities strong. Pokémon Go shows how technology can bring us together, and give us common meaning with those we would not otherwise interact with. While it’s too much to say that Pokémon Go will reverse the trends of Bowling Alone, it is surely a step in the right direction. And to get the final word in, go Mystic!